peteg's blog

Young Frankenstein (1974)

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Mel Brooks completism. This is the highest rated of his features on IMDB. In black-and-white, of course, being set in the present day but strip mining all the Frankenstein myths and portrayals. Gene Wilder lead and co-wrote with Brooks. As the grandson of Shelley's doctor he's at maximum panto, even more than he was in The Producers. (I preferred his knowing and less amped performance in the far more daring Blazing Saddles of the same year.) Marty Feldman was iconic as Igor: his physical comedy and mugging for the camera are often the funniest things on the screen. Peter Boyle played the monster (most famously played by Boris Karloff) in a style that is recognisable from his later performance in Hardcore. He has a very amusing scene with a young girl at a well. Gene Hackman as a blind man! Cloris Leachman, still a middle-aged vamp three years on from The Last Picture Show. Kenneth Mars, the Führer-loving playwright in The Producers, equipped with a mechanical arm lifted straight from Peter Seller's Dr Strangelove. Teri Garr as Swedish entertainment, a favoured Brooks trope.

It took me a few goes to get through as the setup is a bit slow. Brooks seemed to be deeply invested in the idea that Madeline Kahn was foxy. Oscar noms for the adapted screenplay and sound.

Roger Ebert: four stars. Vincent Canby. The elbow-rubbing goodbye was ahead of its time.

Benjamín Labatut: When We Cease to Understand the World. (2021)

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Kindle. Inevitable having read The MANIAC despite not being sold by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim's timely review nor its appearance on the New York Times list of the best of 2021.

This is a collection of shorts that end up being a bit of a sprawling mess. The MANIAC worked better as Labatut went narrower and deeper: all the ventriloquy centred on illuminating von Neumann. Here we're made to think that almost all of modern theoretical physics arose from fever dreams, that Einstein was the last sane man and that's only because he ran out of imagination in confronting the extreme weirdness of quantum mechanics. I think the central theme was that there's a void at the centre of everything (physics, mathematics, morality, so on); Labatut doesn't to know that there is a crack in everything, or more prosaically, that we're stuck in the realm of unsatisfying phenomena. Alexander Grothendieck's life gets embellished; we get merely a sketch of Shinichi Mochizuki. Erwin Schrödinger at a TB clinic in the Swiss mountains, philanderer, predator, opposed by unstable Werner Heisenberg. Fritz Haber: the process, the poison gas. Karl Schwarzschild's solution to Einstein's field equations of general relativity, black holes, wartime. It's too much and not enough.

Labatut writes well and moves us around fluently but to what end I know not. One of these years Francis Spufford will teach someone to write a masterpiece of this genre.

Goodreads. Most reviews recount the tales and gesture at the imponderable.

Rescue Dawn (2006)

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More Werner Herzog completism. The road, it is long and wearying. The first of his big Hollywood efforts which, being shot in the jungles of Thailand, does echo his South American masterworks. But these are the wrong jungles: it's supposed to be 1965 in Laos and Việt Nam when (apparently) there was still a chance that the U.S.A. would not enter the war.

This is the fictionalised version of Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). Christian Bale obtained leave from Nolan's Batman epics to take on the role of Dieter Dengler who, on this account, escapes from a Pathet Lao PoW camp with Steve Zahn after being shot down on his first bombing raid. That's about it for plot; the rest is filigree. It's traditional in the sense that the non-English parts go almost untranslated and the enemies of the Americans are generally treated as subhumans unworthy of consideration. This is disappointingly unsubtle from Herzog: based on what I've seen so far I expected him to at least find a novel angle in this stale scenario.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. Something like what John Huston used to do. Peter Bradshaw makes it sound like he wished Herzog had given it away before this one. Jeremy Davies as PoW Gene from Eugene, Oregon puts on a little of the old Dennis Hopper. (I was not impressed.) Something so 1960s/1970s: Papillon, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Bale repeats his extreme weight loss/gain from The Machinist. Matt Zoller Seitz made it a Critic's Pick. The Great Escape. Herzog always treats the locals as scenery but he humanely — truthy but all of that is mediated by Americans. Daniel Zalewski visited the set. Herzog's methods were considered unsound, or at least archaic, by his Hollywood crew. And where was that ecstatic truth?

Witness (1985)

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Apparently Viggo Mortensen's first role in a feature film. He isn't given much to do and he does it well: making up the numbers in a few crowds of Amish, not chasing Pennsylvanian Amish widow Kelly McGillis (following up her debut in Reuben, Reuben), eyeing Philadelphian detective Harrison Ford knowing he'll supplant him one day. She has a young son (Lukas Haas, as bony as he was in Brick twenty years later) who witnesses a murder by Danny Glover and colleague in a train station toilet. Ford holds them as material witnesses so they never make it to Baltimore. That aspect of the plot quickly goes L. A. Confidential but really this is about the romance between the leads. Everything is predictably Amish Paradise except for Ford who is predictably the best at deploying violence. I did not understand the ending too well.

IMDB tells me this was Peter Weir's first feature-film directorial effort outside of Australia. This got him an Oscar nom, as it did for Ford: his one and only. Shot by John Seale (also nommed and not gonged). The editing and script did get Oscared. The soundtrack by Maurice Jarre has its moments.

Roger Ebert: four stars. Vincent Canby was far less impressed. Alexander Godunov, Amish pursuer of McGillis, steals every scene he's in. Both were fascinated by her physique.

Xavier Herbert: Disturbing Element. (1963)

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On dead tree bought from Adelaide Booksellers a while back in expectation of getting to it before now. The Australian Dictionary of Biography's entry for Xavier Herbert claims this is an unreliable autobiography which might be a polite way of observing that it is generally inadequate.

The ADB details what Herbert needlessly mystifies: his to-be-wed parents had him in Geraldton W.A. in 1901 and the family soon moved to Fremantle where he studied pharmacy in an archaic master/indentured apprentice manner before moving to Melbourne to acquire medical credentials. This plan was abandoned after a year and the book abruptly ends with him on a boat to Sydney (I took it to be England) after the first World War. The title was what his train-engine-driving Dad called him whenever he was a problem which was often.

Annoyingly he doesn't give us any idea how he came by the source material for or views he expresses in Capricornia: I wanted to know how he got to the Northern Territory and about all those jobs he had. Instead we get too many tales of manliness: fisticuffs and tupping the sheilas, some really tedious med student humour. On his account if you were born in Australia between about 1917 and 1984 there's a good chance he’s your father. We don't hear about how or where he met his wife (ADB: on a boat to England in 1930) and what she thought of his salad days. It is as prolix as you'd expect but too short; I don't think this was the most interesting time in his life.

Summarised at length at The Australian Legend. Apparently Herbert was buried in 1984 at Alice Springs Garden Cemetery on the Stuart Highway, near the trucking hall of fame. This is quite distant from the town cemetery where Namatjira was buried thirty years prior. I was probably better off reading Frances Olivia de Groen's 630-page PhD thesis on Herbert.

Le Samouraï (1967)

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A pointer from a review of the recent The Killer. Most of it is like the police-procedural side of The Day of the Jackal: the Parisian police know who their assassin is from early on and the remainder is about enforcing the production code despite being French. There's a psychological dimension to it that I mostly missed; I had no clue what the ending was about. Some of the interior cinematography is fine. It was a time of hats.

Apparently I saw this more than a decade ago. It seems I have more patience for this type of thing now.

Roger Ebert: four stars as a "great movie" in 1997. Vincent Canby, briefly (title The Godson).

The Creator (2023)

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For John David Washington who I enjoyed in BlacKkKlansman and less in Tenet. Notionally it's humans versus machines as we've seen so many times before but really it summarises all the Star Wars tropes of the past several decades, right down to the inability of almost anyone to shoot straight or to pay attention to the stuff we're forced to. Most annoying is that everything has a memorable antecedent outside of that universe: the nuking of Los Angeles from Terminator 2, the child of destiny (various, say Kundun), land wars in Asia (every Việt Nam war movie ever), death from above (ditto, Independence Day minus Bill Pullman), despoliation of utopia (Avatar) and so on and on. It's so crassly unoriginal and dumb. I'm not going near the racialism (essentialism).

Strangely this is set in the same year (2065) as Foe. Here there's dumb A.I. (notionally created dynastically by Gemma Chan and ancestors) but not self-driving cars or military satellites. 2065 must be the new 2001.

Jason Di Rosso interviewed co-writer/director Gareth Edwards and was plenty blunt about it being not much chop: I needed to take him seriously and literally. Nicolas Rapold. IMDb reviews: Chappie, Elysium: just imagine what Copley could've done with it. Some humour would have helped immensely (The Mitchells vs the Machines).

Foe (2023)

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Jason Di Rosso interviewed Australian co-writer/director Garth Davis. He was not enthusiastic about the film so I had some idea what I was in for. The raw material was supplied by Iain Reid. I didn't get it at all.

The setup has Paul Mescal, new to me, hitched to Saoirse Ronan in a Midwest that is transparently somewhere in Victoria. (Was that Pabst Blue Ribbon beer? Wow.) Actually it's more like she's shackled by him, at least some of the time, and the deep confusion begins when we hear that they went to school together but didn't properly meet or romance until later. How could she not know what she was getting into? He's the latest and possibly last patriarch of his family farm, now infertile apart from one lonely Eucalypt, and for much of it the marriage is a joyless grind apart from some ecstatic sex in random locations.

This is all bent by a busted scifi premise, something like Total Recall without ... well, everyone. Some corporation drafts him to go off-world, causing bemused Englishman Aaron Pierre to arrive in the self-driving iCybertruck for model year 2065. Both he and Ronan smoke like it’s 1965. Somehow it is critical that Ronan not be left by herself — what about him on the space station? what is this, 1865? — so at about 43 minutes in a clone is arranged and the movie announces itself as being written by very limited men. (The cinematography already suggests this by cleaving so close to murky Fincher despite there being ample opportunity for expansive Malick-esque twirling. The CGI is generally terrible and unnecessary, and overall it made me wish I was watching another open-air Werner Herzog.)

This much I knew from Di Rosso's interview, as well as there being a twist. Well, I didn't understand the twist at all. At about 50 minutes it's clear that something else is going on. Later he doesn't think to use a powertool to solve his problem (a bracelet) which makes it clear we're not looking at a farmboy. There's a strange blood-and-soil motif at 1hr10min. I started to wonder if this wasn't The Game, but no, eventually (1hr25m) the clone is informed "it" is not "real" and so it goes. Who agreed to the premise of this setup? What was learnt from this unreality? They created a golem and the result was hellishly predictable.

Actually my problems started very early on. Why is this government or corporation moving people to space, and why would it be temporary? Everyone knows only the billionaires are going, or more likely machinery with their consciousnesses encoded. And the initial scene of Ronan blubbing in the shower (she does a lot of blubbing throughout) almost made me quit right then. The ending suggests (spoiler? can it be spoilt?) she got cloned too.

Against this Her looks like genius. I had hoped it was going for the Laura moves but no. Another option might've been a clone-only marriage or to take it to the limit as Star Wars fanfic.

Ben Kenigsberg was scathing. Luke Goodsell: over earnest, Bladerunner, it's gonna get smashed. Wendy Ide and Adrian Horton did some (more) smashing: Black Mirror: Be Right Back from 2013, predating the book. Oops. Another stomping from Monica Castillo: if the copy is any good it could go to space instead of him. Oops. Generally held to be accidentally comical. Oops.

The Producers (1967)

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Mel Brooks completism. His first feature as writer and director; the writing got him an Oscar. In two sittings.

Theatre producer Zero Mostel, glory days behind him, is scavenging funds from little old ladies who find him irresistible. Accountant Gene Wilder (Oscar nominated) is sent by someone to do his books but instead ideates a fraud: what if we oversubscribe the profits for a production and make a bomb? (I expect Hollywood works in a similar way.) This leads them to Kenneth Mars's Springtime for Hitler of which we're not shown enough to justify its inevitable success; Director Christopher Hewett (partnered with Andréas Voutsinas) and lead "LSD" Dick Shawn turn it into some kind of Elvis-inspired Las Vegas musical to Mars's consternation. Lee Meredith plays stale Swedish distraction.

I found some of the first half genuinely funny but as things go as they must the tiresome aspects started to dominate.

Roger Ebert: four stars (in 2000 as a "great movie") and the benchmark for Mel Brooks forevermore.

The Killer (2023)

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Fincher's followup to Mank, and unfortunately extending his run of dogs; the last feature he made that's worth watching is Gone Girl. A Netflix production.

There's not a lot going on here. Michael Fassbender (whose last good feature was Macbeth in 2015 I think) plays a Jackal, vacantly, and we all know how that one goes. And if we don't, we've seen Kill Bill. There's a relentless voiceover of Fassbender's thoughts, a sort of self-help guide for professional killers. There's also "Q-Tip" Tilda Swinton mouthing off like a Bond villain.

I was a bit weirded out by the soundtrack: Fassbender's assassin has The Smiths's Meat is Murder as his workday playlist, so inevitably their best-by-far track How Soon is Now? comes on at the critical moment. A later criticality at his jungle lair features Portishead's Glory Box at extreme volume, presumably to cover the events that occurred a few hours prior (I'm guessing). It is as if nothing has happened in almost twenty years. Surely Trent Reznor (with a nod from collaborator Atticus Ross) could've slipped a Nine Inch Nails classic in to round out the retro.

At times it put me in mind of McQueen's Shame: masterfully made, compulsive and joyless, unnecessary.

Manohla Dargis. Based on a French comic. The fight scene was so dim. Wendy Ide. Shane Danielsen, spilling more words than it's worth, suggests seeing Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) instead. Glenn Kenny: it helps if you're American.

Una (2016)

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An idle bit of Riz Ahmed completism. Also Ben Mendelsohn. Rooney Mara leads in what presents as a Lolita retread.

Except it's not. Vladimir Nabakov's game, as I saw it, was to make art about something so off colour that people would be forever arguing its merits. This is more of a reworking of Mamet's Oleanna (1994): essentially a two-hander about sexual predation with a few minor characters to add some texture, similarly derived from a play.

One day Rooney Mara decides to relitigate her abuse at the age of 13 by Ben Mendelsohn by visiting him at his workplace, a logistics warehouse. Mara mostly looks vacantly damaged so one of the better moments is when Ahmed gets a smile out of her on the way to the confrontation; that's about it though as his character is just a sap. The script leaves no room for things to go anywhere interesting: she doesn't appear to know what she wants and it's unclear why Mendelsohn engages at all. The workplace shenanigans make for some incongruity when the vibe is revenge, like a realist Promising Young Woman, right up to the end where she just walks off into the night. Or was it reclamation? Heavy handed, heavy on the cliches, humourless, reductive, inconclusive, powerless.

Glenn Kenny: adapted from a play, the addition of flashbacks does not help. Less would've been more. Peter Bradshaw: the play was Blackbird from 2005.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

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The first of Werner Herzog's Hollywood efforts that I can remember seeing. It's obviously a remake of sorts of Bad Lieutenant, or perhaps just covers its greatest hits (not including the nun plot). There are quite a few winks to Herzog's fan base including a Klaus Kinski entrance by lead Nicolas Cage (in the casino, when his charge goes missing) and a David Lynch-adjacent recurring iguana segment. It's not very good. Annoyingly the cast is quite strong but ill-used; Val Kilmer can do a lot more than just mouth off ineffectually and Michael Shannon is asked for little more than a shrug. Eva Mendes did what she could. Brad Dourif! Jennifer Coolidge as Cage's stepmom. It should've been something.

Roger Ebert: four ineffable stars. A comedy. Stephanie Zacharek. A. O. Scott — Cage acts like "Jimmy Stewart as a crackhead" — and Manohla Dargis. Heavily marketed at the time, of course.

The Pigeon Tunnel (2023)

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Another Apple Original. Errol Morris interviewed David Cornwell aka John le Carré not too long before the latter's death. The title is a motif from childhood and shared with Cornwell's autobiographical book of 2016. Most of it is about his relationship with his shyster father which I felt could've involved more incidents and less psychologising. (Yes, my expectations are off base and that is probably why I haven't read too many spy novels.) Cornwell presents a simplistic nation-above-all morality that lacks any political analysis; to him it seems it was always about individuals playing in teams whose membership is fixed by birth, excepting the traitors who are into betrayal for the kicks or the lolz. It falls a long way short of Morris's best (consider The Fog of War) where he peels back a few layers to the benefit of all. Overall I didn't get much from it.

Jeannette Catsoulis made it a critic's pick. Richard Brody. The bulk of it does not live up to that playful beginning. The various movie clips and reenactments detract from the interview. The motif: "think Sisyphus but with bullets". Peter Bradshaw: "Perhaps there is nothing very new in this film, but it's a very civilised experience." He points to where you can find the dirt. And of course Morris is a mate of Herzog's.

The Twelve Chairs (1970)

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After too much Werner Herzog it was time for more Mel Brooks. This was his second outing as director. A young Frank Langella leads erstwhile aristocrat Ron Moody around Russia, ten years after the revolution, looking for one chair amongst many. Langella plays a suave young lothario not too far from his role in Diary of a Mad Housewife from the same year. Orthodox priest Dom DeLuise searches independently, nuttily, having learned of the MacGuffin from the dying matriarch's confession: it is God's will that he finds it but He is strict. As a panto it has its moments but is generally too diffuse.

Roger Ebert: four stars. Vincent Canby: innocently joyless. Apparently based on a Soviet comic novel.

Werner Herzog: Every Man for Himself and God Against All: a memoir. (2023)

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Kindle. What a title. If you go in cold (I did for the first half) it's a lot of fun. However things are more tedious the more familiar you are with Herzog's schtick (as I was by the second half). His stories of growing up in post-war Germany, in "the remote Bavarian village of Sachrang" near the Austrian border show him self-constructing the globetrotting auteur who remorselessly hunts down his cinematic visions at all costs to everyone. Of course Klaus Kinski comes in for another serve (more than twenty years after My Best Fiend) and we get another retelling of all the fables attached to the making of Fitzcarraldo etc. He skims over his romantic attachments and domestic situations; he's always out there chasing the next thing. Digital filmmaking has allowed him to increase his output exponentially. He shared a particular attitude towards truth in the world with Bruce Chatwin. I wonder why he never worked with Rutger Hauer.

Prompted by Dwight Garner who claims he didn't believe a word of it. Bonus points for the Douglas Adams reference. A lengthy Q&A assembled by Tim Lewis: unacknowledged German humour is a laughing matter. Goodreads was generally impressed. Much later and at great length, David Trotter at the London Review of Books. Similarly Mark O’Connell at the New York Review of Books.

Fingernails (2023)

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More proof I'll watch Riz Ahmed attempt anything. Another Apple Original production. It put me in mind of their other big misfire that I saw: Swan Song. They seem to aim to churn out sanitised, carefully engineering pap that avoids even the possibility of smudging the brand, and they have yet to figure out how to bottle whatever it was that made CODA Oscar worthy.

Notionally a scifi but the premise is so lame, the setting so quotidian, the exposition so condescending that it's more like a documentary on the neuroticism of the age: the need to be externally validated as a normie, the desire for certainty, accurate predictions without doing the hard yards of building a theory or knowing your own mind, the projection of an acceptable present forevermore with a dash of brand new you're retro incarnated in a wall of books, albums, 1980s power ballads, appendix removal scars and pixels you can actually see. (Sorta like The Simpsons, stuck in the present indefinite.) What do we learn from a test that is supposed to show that two people are in love? It's something like Perfect Match, arse backwards, that reality TV rendered entirely obsolete. This is not Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

I haven't seen Jessie Buckley before. She's in some kind of low-trust relationship (or is it low understanding?) and has an easy and apparently readily forgivable manner of lying. We know she's in trouble when she meets Ahmed, especially when they sit through a "no one understands love more than Hugh Grant" movie marathon in a cinema (!). (The failings listed above, this pining for the big screen on a streaming platform, the Caribou documentary and Luke Wilson ... I couldn't tell if I was watching a parody, a satire, a comedy — but trust me it is sincerely humourless throughout. And everyone knows Grant does a mean and greasy bad guy.)

What's perhaps the strangest thing here is the lack of sex or sexiness. Just love thanks, says Apple, we'll be shipping out the next generation of consumers via iStork. There's an unsexy shower scene. The claim by one testee that she'd been bonking her best man every night for a week for at least an hour put me in mind of Praise.

Jeannette Catsoulis saw a lot more here than I did and made it a critic's pick.

My Best Fiend (1999)

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Klaus Kinski apparently had his say in his autobiography published in 1988. I guess this was Werner Herzog's riposte in his native medium, eight years after Kinski passed.

Mostly this is Herzog declaiming directly to the camera and that gets tiresome fast. Most of the anecdotes are rehearsed elsewhere which made me suspect that the majority of the experiences of making Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre were transient or forgettable. The best parts are when he self-satirizes, for instance by following up a tale of declining the offer by some Peruvian Indians to murder Kinski with some pleading for his own sanity before describing his own plot to achieve the same end at some other place and time.

Burden of Dreams is superior as it doesn't allow Herzog to get away with so much self-serving flab. One reason to watch is for footage of some proper Kinski outbursts, though the first one is a lengthy 51 minutes in and it only involves producer/collateral damage Walter Saxer. Another highlight is Claudia Cardinale at 1 hour 23m observing that Kinski's cleanliness fetish was a little bit like Michael Jackson!

Roger Ebert: three stars. The picture of Kinski taking a machete to Herzog's neck is worth the whole movie. Janet Maslin. Ian Buruma takes Herzog on more deeply, broadly and entertainingly in 2007: fabulism, "the twentieth century [was a] massive, colossal and cataclysmic mistake." I'm about Herzogged out.

Burden of Dreams (1982)

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Every Apocalypse Now needs its Hearts of Darkness; this is Les Blank doing the necessary for Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. (Herzog and a member of crew return the favour by wearing tshirts that say "garlic is as good as ten mothers" (at keeping the girls away).)

As a documentary of the production it disappoints only in not recording any Kinski explosions; apparently I need to watch My Best Fiend for those. His monologue is colourful, incoherent and somewhat engaging while Herzog has a few goes at out-Brandoing Brando in his Germanic monotone. I can't imagine Jason Robards in the lead — he looks like he's trying so hard in the surviving footage, at least relative to Kinski — and his scenes with Mick Jagger are not great. Claudia Cardinale appears but does not engage the documentarians. She had the good sense to not leave the city. It is clear that while Herzog has that will to conquer the useless, Kinski out-insanes everyone.

Roger Ebert: four stars. Vincent Canby.